Learning Group: Working with Participation and Emergence

Conversation cohort

Working with participation and emergence

An online community of learners

These are such important times for the work of community, system, and organizational change. And there are such interesting times, with so many making compelling and hopeful experiments on so many fronts.

But it can be tough to do all that reading, listening, sense-making and synthesis on your own. Too much to read, and often a lot of chaff to sift through before you’ve got the wheat you need.

Our idea: make the invitation below, see who shows up, and support one another on this jolly, surprising, and difficult road to working well in complexity and uncertainty, fully embracing the depths of each human’s experience.

The invitation

You are invited to participate in a group of learners who seek to grow as contributors to system- and community-scale change, and who commit to one another’s learning and growth.


To become better able to participate in work that moves us toward equity and sustainability.

We hope to attract people who are motivated by a desire to contribute – somehow, big or small, in whatever corner of life they find themselves – to what Joanna Macy refers to as “The Great Turning.” We’re not really interested in learning for its own sake. We’re looking for a tribe who’s hungry to grow as contributors to systemic shifts.

You cannot predict the outcome of human development. All you can do, like a farmer, is create the conditions under which it will begin to flourish.

Sir Ken Robinson

The challenge is to think broadly enough to have a theory and methodology that have the power to make a difference, and yet be simple and clear enough to be accessible to anyone who wants to make that difference. We need ideas from a variety of places and disciplines to deal with the complexity of community. Then, acting as if these ideas are true, we must translate them into embarrassingly simple and concrete acts.

Peter Block

The ability to shift from reacting against the past to leaning into and presencing an emerging future is probably the single most important leadership capacity today. It is a capacity that is critical in situations of disruptive change, not only for institutions and systems, but also for teams and individuals.

Otto Scharmer

…In order to create a world that works for more people, for more life, we have to collaborate on the process of dreaming and visioning and implementing that world. …The more people who co-create the future, the more people whose concerns will be addressed from the foundational level in this world.

adrienne maree brown

Topics? Seeds of a group learning agenda

During the first two weeks of this gathering, we will get to know each other and collaborate on a lean coffee-style group learning agenda. We’ll keep the agenda updated as we go, and use it to guide the way we use online conversations, invite guests, gather and share resources, and cetera.

But just to give you a feel, here are the kinds of things we hope you’ll feel attracted to learn, discuss, explore, try, teach, play with:

  • Practical approaches to working in/with emergence for long-term system / community shifts (e.g., Social Labs, Positive Deviance, what the Fliplabs people do, the Transition Design stuff, social movements, portfolios of probes, …?)
  • Taking participation seriously: managing and facilitating participation over the long haul
  • Taking power, race, equity, justice, and systemic convening seriously in our work
  • Developmental evaluation
  • Useful models of systemic change
  • The Cynefin Framework and the practices that surround it
  • The vital tangle of scales: self, other, group, community and system
  • Oh my, there’s much more….

How it works

Community as curriculum

Marc Rettig (one of the Fit Associates principals) will act as convener and host, in hope that if this gels into something lasting, such roles will move around through the group. Marc has been digging into these topics for quite a while, but says he also has a lot to learn. He teaches some of these topics, but the idea is that this a group of peer learners, not a class with an instructor.

The idea of “community as curriculum” is that we all learn from each other, we learn from others together, we discover things from our similarities and differences, and we collaborate in ways that all benefit from each person’s learning.

We’re interested in learning as we go how best to host and facilitate this, and willing to make a commitment to a group of people who share similar passion for learning and impact.

Things that are probably so

We’ll charge a membership fee.

  • In part to fund things like honorariums for guests, scholarships for people who need one and who would greatly benefit and/or improve the group’s diversity, and um,… stuff
  • And in part — being honest here — because this is included in the category, “Stuff we do to make a living through work we believe to matter.”

At first we’ll cap the group size.
At say, more than six, less than twenty.

We’ll do it for a fixed period, then decide if we want to continue.
Six to nine months, for starters. Stay tuned.

To be determined

  • The particular online platform(s)
  • Kickoff date (Fall or Winter of 2018, we think)
  • Price (there’s a little survey in the form below)

Next steps

  • We’ll talk it up, circulate it, invite people, and keep going until a quorum forms.
  • Once we see sufficient interest, we’ll give it an online home.
  • We’ll turn on a bit of infrastructure, and ask people to commit time and a little $ — the invitation will be to act as citizens rather than consumers, bringing your gifts, your good questions, and your commitment to one another’s learning and growth.
  • We’ll set a kickoff date, propose a schedule, and off we go!

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Trusting Relationships for Choppy Times

Workshop series

Trusting Relationships for Choppy Times

A program of workshops and practice

A series of insights and activities that is profoundly equipping and empowering for diverse groups who want to stick together as they navigate the complexities of creating change together. Learn to cultivate good relationships and healthy communication — the building blocks of good group culture.

By the end of this course, you will be able to…

  • Identify behavior that builds or breaks trust
  • Understand what subconscious habits keep you from building trusting relationships
  • Be more able to stay present and engaged when you feel uncomfortable
  • Be more able to speak up honestly, and with compassion
  • Understand and welcome the transforming force of conflict
  • Repair relationship ruptures

This is available to hold inside your organizatio

When these sessions are experienced together by people from thee same organization, it can be transforming. Trust, relationship, and communication are all supporting pillars of a culture. Gather your teams, gather people from across different parts of your organization or system (we can help you convene, if you like), go through this course together, and cap it with a work session on how to sustain the new learnings and habits over the months that follow.

We’ll conduct this publicly with the right partner 

We would love to run this as series of public workshops in the Pittsburgh region, or as an event in your city.

Interested in an online version of this course?

So are we! We seek a development partner to help with this good idea.

Student Quotes

I was impressed by everyone’s ability to be comfortable in playing out the situations in class. Each situation is amazing to watch because we can see the externalization of thought into body and action. These things make all the difference to change any situation. The more comfortable I got, the more I was able to see the plays as a way to empower anyone in the group to act. In some way, it builds confidence in individuals--saying "Yes, you can make a difference."

I learned so much when we broke into groups and went through role-playing scenarios, and people acted out skits where communication was the issue. We ran through each of the scenarios multiple times, and at the end talked about what might be different based on how the people communicated and reacted. It helped me to understand that conversations are give and take.

The introduction to trust-preserving communication turned into an exercise where I looked at my relationships and discovered areas where I feel I have damaged myself or the other person by not being honest.  I created an action plan to have conversations where I can retroactively speak my truth about that issue, and asked a friend to hold me accountable for following through.

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Hosting and Facilitation Boot Camp

In-person course

Hosting and Facilitation Boot Camp

A program of workshops and practice

  • Learn to host conversations that move the status quo.
  • Become able to hold group sessions where power is shared, vision is co-created, and creativity is cultivated.

Host your first group session

The ideas, short assignments, and coaching culminate in your first experience in hosting a session of group understanding, dialogue, and co-creation.

The small group is the unit of transformation.

Peter Block

We are gathering our first cohort in Pittsburgh!

Use the form below to get your name on the list for a first-in-line discount, and an invitation to help us arrange the schedule to accommodate your constraints (no promises, but we will listen and do our best!). 


The course will consist of eight five-hour Saturday sessions, spread two weeks apart. Between sessions you can expect a modest amount of reading or video watching, as well as field assignments: a gradual step-by-step build to hosting a group conversation.

Expected cost and discounts

We plan to ask $2800 for all eight sessions, an online library of resources, participation in the course’s online group, and coaching as you work on the field assignments. The first-in-line discount will be significant, and we will make provision for scholarships and reduced rates for students and independent community leaders. We will also offer discounts when more than two people sign up from the same organization.

We strongly recommend a buddy system

This course works best when two or more people from the same organization or community take it together, and collaborate on the project work. It makes for better learning, and it makes for more lasting results and continued learning after the course is over. Who could be your partner in bringing new gathering and collaboration practices into your world? Come learn and practice together.

This is about gatherings that matter

  • How do we use our time together in a high-engagement way?
  • How do we get every voice in the room?
  • How do we get people together across social distance?
  • How do we get people in the room who aren’t like-minded?

This course has developed over eight years of teaching graduate students in social innovation programs (SVA DSI and CMU Design), as well as practice with organizations, communities and systems far and wide.

We’ve drawn stance, spirit, methods and practices from many communities who work with hosting, dialogue, and facilitating participatory co-creation, such as:

“All change includes work in small groups. The future is created one room at a time, one gathering at a time. Each gathering needs to become an example of the future we want to create. This means the small group is where transformation takes place.

“We change the world one room at a time. This room, today, becomes an example of the future we want to create. There is no need to wait for the future. Creating the experience of belonging in the room by the way we structure the gathering is as critical as the issue or future we come together to address.

The small group is the structure that allows every voice to be heard. “

– Peter Block

Student Quotes

The facilitation work taught me about engaging with people. I never thought I could interact with strangers that deeply: interviewing people from different religions, inviting them to our activity and facilitating their conversation. I always thought of myself as unsocial, but I discovered that I could learn!

The most beautiful moment was seeing two of the seniors walk hand-in-hand across the street after our event. They became friends in those two hours. Words cannot explain just how heart-warming that moment was, as we stood there, tears in all our eyes. This is why we do what we do, and this experience made me realize that this is what design should be. This was my first facilitation experience, and I cannot wait for the opportunity to do it all over again.

I had a great experience facilitating. I was nervous about the public speaking aspect, a big growth area for me, but it ended up going really well. I was comfortable with my co-facilitators. I was well rehearsed and very comfortable with what I needed to say. I even looked up while I was speaking and felt very encouraged by people’s engagement.

Our Skype call with Marc and Hannah propelled us to a comfortable state of assurance. We again followed their instructions as a group and finalized our duties with ease. Their critical feedback on our facilitation plan was our leverage point into being prepared for the session.

What you get

1. Frameworks, guidance and structure for… 

  • listening to a community or group of people to learn what conversations would be valuable, but which aren’t being held
  • creating compelling invitations
  • designing a hosting / facilitation plan

2. Access to a library of methods

A library of group methods that extends far beyond our usual ways of having “meetings” and “brainstorms.” You will experience a lot of these methods in class sessions, which will give you the literacy and confidence you need to learn more on your own from other sources.

3. The confidence that comes through practice and experience

4. Samples and templates

for facilitation guides, session plans, and workshop materials

5. Support and community

The support of a group of people who are learning this stuff together, and an online home for that group which will remain long after the course ends.

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Help us pick dates

This course involves eight sessions, held every other Saturday for four to five hours each session. (Don't worry, it's mostly NOT lecture. It's doing stuff!) Think about that, and think about two to four hours of work in the period between each session. When can you make the time to dig in?

Preferred dates
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Starting August 2019
Starting September 2019
Starting October 2019
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Listening Master Class

Workshop series

Listening Master Class

A three-workshop series

This “learning lab for listening” is based on our work in organizations, our grad-school courses in design for social innovation, and our long history of working with “ethnographic methods.” These workshops give you practical methods for interpersonal and group listening, with practical ways to improve the “culture of listening” in your group or team.

By the end of this course, you will be able to

  • Switch into “active listening mode” whenever you want
  • Deepen a conversation, to listen for what’s under the story
  • Validate whether you’ve heard what someone was really trying to say
  • Capture what you’ve heard
  • Introduce deeper listening into a team or group culture
  • Pursue your own agenda for continued learning

Works great in organizations and communities

We have improved people’s listening skills in graduate courses, public workshops, and organizational settings for the last eight years. If you’d like to give your team or organizational culture a boost in listening skills and cultural habits, we’d love to talk about the possibilities.

Especially when it gathers people who don’t see eye-to-eye

We’ve found this to be particularly impactful when it gathers people who need to communicate well, but who come from different backgrounds, work in different disciplines or silos, and may be hearing each other through the filters of their presuppositions about one another.

We’ll conduct this publicly with the right partner 

We would love to run this as series of public workshops in the Pittsburgh region, or as a two-day event in your city.

Interested in an online version of this course?

So are we! We seek a development partner to help with this good idea.

Student Quotes

The course trained me to be more conscious of my role/behavior/influence in the process of forming team dynamics. ...I realized that if people say no to my ideas, it's more effective to find out why than to just try to persuade them. Now I ask them the reason behind their objection, and really listen to their concerns from their point of view.

"Most people think that listening is waiting; waiting to speak." As a designer, I have been taught again and again about the importance of listening to people, in our personal lives or during research for projects. I thought I was especially good at listening. But really I was just  patiently waiting so the other person could finish and I could say what I have in mind. I was wrong. I don't listen. I have gained a sense of how important that is, and it's something that will stay with me.

I chose to do the second assignment with my Father. And I realized that though we had started to talk more openly with one another, we were choosing our words so carefully (to avoid offending the other or creating conflict), that neither of us were actually communicating our real thoughts and opinions. The fifteen minutes of really listening was, I think, a bit of a breakthrough for us.

The “listen across difference” exercise was challenging for me, but it has opened me up to try and do this more often, since I am extremely interested in conflict and the various ways we resolve it. The biggest thing I learned from this exercise is that it’s okay to disagree as long as we can make the space for all sides to be heard, and I hope to keep practicing this train of thought in my work ahead. I expect it will be a long and challenging, but ultimately rewarding road.


1. Foundations: listening’s remarkable power, barriers, and how to overcome them

  • Practice in listening with and without barriers
  • Practicing the basics of “active listening”
  • Preparation for the first field assignment.

2. Developing individual skills

  • Active listening without seeming weird
  • Conversational probes–questions and techniques to deepen responses
  • How to check your hearing
  • Remembering what you’ve heard
  • Listening without judgment: hanging in there when you don’t like what you’re hearing
  • Preparation for second field assignment

3. Bringing better listening to team or group culture

  • Principles of group listening
  • How to improve listening in your team, and how to make it stick through roles, artifacts, and rituals
  • Discussion: what to do when real listening is counter-cultural
  • Overview and introduction to resources for deeper group listening methods
  • Next steps: developing your learning agenda

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Marc Rettig

Marc’s 35-year career has been guided by an interest in people, systems, communication, anthropology and the power of design. His current work is defined by a question — “How can we advance the practice of creating resilient health in social systems?” — a question which puts him on the frontier of applying design methods to social and strategic questions.

A masterful teacher and facilitator, Marc brings a tremendous kit of tools to any gathering. He takes a gardening or conversational approach to leadership, believing that groups of people who are aligned to a common purpose hold more possibility of innovation and transformation than any individual, and that tending to the essential conversations is more potent than any single method or process.

Marc has been a leading figure in interaction design, user experience, and the use of ethnographic methods for strategic design. So far as he knows, he was the first person to hold the job title, “Chief Experience Officer.” His early writings on paper prototypes influenced a generation of design students.

Marc is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Design for Social Innovation program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Formerly a Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Practice in the Carnegie Mellon University School of Design, where he was the 2002 Nierenberg Chair of Design, he now serves there as a Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Practice.

You can read more about Marc on his LinkedIn profile.
He is @mrettig on Twitter.

Hannah du Plessis

Hannah’s work blends business, design, community and the arts. This blend developed through eight years experience in community leadership in South Africa, ten years of design leadership (including partnership in an architecture firm), and consulting experience in the U.S., Europe and Africa.

Hannah’s first career as interior architect spanned a decade and three continents, and includes 18 built projects. Her love for the creative process has taken her drawings into publications and art galleries and herself onto stage as presenter, actor, improviser and dancer.

Hannah is a founding faculty member of the Masters in Design for Social Innovation program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. And she is a Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Practice in the Carnegie Mellon University School of Design. She has taught internationally in the field of design and innovation at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago, at Cedim in Mexico and at the University of Pretoria. She holds a Masters in Design Methodology from IIT, a degree in interior design from the University of Pretoria and a diploma in fine arts.

You can learn more about Hannah on her LinkedIn profile.
She is @hannahdup on Twitter.

Free Your Inner Circus

Featured Course

Free Your Inner Circus

Transformational practices for change leaders

Limited to 25 participants

Created by Hannah du Plessis of Fit Associates, CMU, and SVA Social Innovation
In partnership with Inclusant’s Creating Confluence series

  Eight 3-hour in-person sessions

  Online resource library 

  Guided practices for each topic

  Local change makers as guests

Registration for 2018 is closed. See you next year!

This course is already underway. But we do intend to run it again, and can put you on the list of people to notify as soon as we make our plans. 

Want a version in your city or organization?

Let us know in the “tell us you’re interested” form.

Let us know you're interested

Based on eight years of study, teaching, practice and experience

A “learning lab” to help you become able to stand in creative response to the challenges of changing ourselves and our world

This course gives you...

✓  Ways to build a trusting relationship with yourself, through habits of listening to and caring for yourself

✓  Personal practices to help you stand in creative response to life

✓  A journal of your writings and reflections for each topic

✓  Lifetime access to a library of resources, readings and videos

✓  A framework and good beginning for continued personal development

A unique space for deep learning

✓  Learn from local change makers and a group of peers engaged in similar questions

✓  A rich mix of activities, brief lectures, readings, conversations, and personal reflection

✓  Class activities draw from art, theater, mindfulness, and more

✓  The freedom to engage at your own level of comfort

Student Quotes

After doing these activities, I’m feeling more confident about the idea of changing myself. But “change” doesn’t mean force or twist to me, but the growing ability to initiate my inner power. The power comes when I can pull back, stand outside the situation, and see it with new perspective. I am gradually learning not to narrow my mind, but to nurture my mind’s openness. This makes me happy!

I am grateful for the space and time where I got to challenge myself and grow. I appreciate Hannah's humility, vulnerability and thoughtfulness. She met us where we were.

I am shifting my focus from outcomes and "success" to process. The process of change is beautiful – the time it takes, the challenges I face, the people around me. It is all beautiful.

Joanna Macy says that “there is no private salvation; I cannot be healed unless you are healed.” Sometimes we can feel so powerless in dealing with issues that are so large scale, but which influence every aspect of our lives. I agree that acknowledging our weakness and true intentions is the best way to be present in this crazy world. It is very difficult when no one is doing that with you. I feel that in this class, Hannah is trying exactly this: to open our heart, to listen and to accept that we are all suffering with the world.

Details: where, when, what to expect


5512 Hobart Street, Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh
View a map


We will meet every other Wednesday evening from 6:00 to 9:00pm, starting September 12 and ending December 19. So that’s:

  • September 12 and 26
  • October 10 and 24
  • November 7 and 21
  • December 5 and 19

How much time will this require?

Outside of class, expect to spend ten minutes each day on the practices, and a one- to two-hour coffee date with yourself sometime during the two weeks between sessions, to go through the readings and exercises. (That’s the minimum. You might choose to do more!)

What will the sessions be like?

Each session will be broken into two parts with a short break between. We will provide light refreshments, but not dinner. Together we’ll create a learning space of unconditional acceptance so that we can show up unedited. We will explore topics intellectually, through dialogue and through embodied methods. You are invited to stretch yourself, but always free to participate only to the degree you feel comfortable. I bring the perspective of a white immigrant women. To open the window of wisdom wider, I am inviting guest speakers whose lived experience differs from mine.

Who will be our guest speakers?

Our guests are practitioners from the Pittsburgh region who work on creating social change. 

  • Session one: Sheba Gittens “Sheba Gittens is, as you are”
  • Session two: Michelle King see her talk here
  • Session four: Julius Boatright from Steel Smiling
  • Session seven: I Medina spoken word artist, community educator, mama and evolving human

Writings from Hannah, related to the topic of this course

Read more about Hannah on the Instructors page.

Stories about working through white guilt, shame, and silence, and reflections on white peoples’ role in creating change: Fynbos and Fire

An essay for Roz Duffy’s Fear of Creativity collection: Fear in the creative journey

An article on feeling like you don’t belong: A letter to the misfit

A paper for the Transition Design Seminar at CMU: The mindset and Posture Required to Engender Life-Affirming Transitions

A story about the mindset from which we engender change: Oppression and Sue

On #metoo and trauma: This is not the end of your story

What if you could change your relationship with your inner critic? The value of your inner critic

What you are, the world is. And without your transformation, there can be no transformation of the world.

J. Krishnamurti

Everyone in a relationship or community is committed to their own self-transformation. We see ourselves as microcosms of the world, and work to shift oppressive patterns in our bodies, hearts, minds, speech, interactions, liberating ourselves into purpose, liberating our communities into new practices.

adrienne maree brown

And there is another way of going about things, in dealing with the mortal threats that our planet now faces, which is to consider, not what we do, but who we are.

Michael McCarthy

Course topics

1. Pack your bags: deepen your sense of agency and gain strength for the journey

What is the relationship between personal transformation and a better world?
Learn the difference between incremental change and transformation
Learn about the different stages people go through on the journey of transformation

Practice Set #1: Gain strength for the journey

Journal exercises
 Reframe the idea of “life’s journey” 

Let your social system help you recognize and claim your strength

Daily practice
 Create a place for reflection. Practice checking in and resourcing yourself in this moment

2. Develop night vision: increase your self-awareness and acceptance

Understand the forces that shape us
Learn the importance of self-awareness and unconditional acceptance
Understand the importance and components of self-compassion

Practice Set #2: Increase self-awareness and acceptance

Journal exercises
Explore the influence of your family history 

Self-compassion writing exercise

Daily practice
 Five minutes of mindful acceptance or free-writing

3. Work with your monkey mind: learn to see and question your beliefs

Understand how beliefs perpetuate themselves
Take a look into white supremacy culture
Look at how beliefs are formed and shifted

Practice Set #3: Shifting beliefs

Journal exercises
Use the ”ladder of inference” to unpack your judgments about someone else

Write through judgment into self-knowledge and empathy

Daily practice
 Keep a pain diary, question your beliefs

4. Calm your anacondas: working with strong emotion

 Understand what emotions are and why they matter
 Understand what is useful (or not) when working with emotions
 Dig deeper into understanding and working with fear

Practice Set #4: Working with strong emotions

Journal exercise
 Write through strong emotions to find their wisdom

Daily practice
 Body and emotions scan

 In-the-moment practice: practice the RAIN technique                 

5. Support the wounded elephant: working with past pain and shame

Understand trauma and healing: what it is, why it matters
Take a step toward the difficulty: choose a painful aspect of your personal or cultural past to work with

Practice Set #5: Transforming pain

Journal exercise
Explore the shadow side of your own identity and cultural history

Daily practice
Ritual: practice letting go of something tough
Self-acceptance, self-forgivenness, and resourcing

6. Learn the ancient language: become still and tap into your own wisdom

Understand why we need our inner compass and our cultural script
Accessing your inner compass: remember what truth feels like in the body
Explore practices that help us step into stillness

Practice Set #6: Deep listening

Journal exercises
Writing exercises to access your inner wisdom

Daily practice
Try different techniques to quiet your mind and let go of control

7. Flaunt those flamingos: nourishing your creative fire

Learn the conditions necessary for creative response to life
Learn how to work with your inner critic barring the way

Practice Set #7: Dig into your power

Journal exercise
Develop your rebuttal against your inner critic
Body Practice freewriting from your imagination
Take yourself on an artist’s date to rekindle a sense of wonder

Daily practice
Practice resting into this moment and entering it fully   

8. Wild joy: caring as a way of being

Set yourself up for success: a closing conversation on how to stay engaged in cultivating joy, committed to your own becoming, trusting the process, and surrounding yourself with supportive relationships and practices. Discuss how these practices can be applied to groups as you facilitate change.